Thursday, December 29, 2011

Write What You Know: A Career U.S. Diplomat


Robbie Cutler Diplomatic Mysteries

By William S. Shepard

I was a career diplomat in the American Foreign Service. I served at our U.S. embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens, and then retired as Consul General in Bordeaux, France. Since the usual advice given to beginning writers was “write about what you know,” I wrote about the Embassy world. During one of my five Washington tours, as Duty Officer for the Secretary of State, I found myself staying late one evening at the office. While I perused files and diplomatic cables, I realized I had access to a variety of interesting information and sources. That was when the idea came to me that after I retired, I would write mystery stories set in American Embassies overseas.

It was a new genre at the time, and to my knowledge I was the only writer writing what I call “diplomatic mysteries.” I began the series with my protagonist, Robbie Cutler, a thirty- something career diplomat. He served where I had served, and if necessary, I went back overseas to validate my story and for research purposes.

When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest it was during the communist years, when the Hungarian Revolution was officially a nonevent, so it was impossible to do solid research. After the Berlin Wall came down, and with the assistance of both the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Budapest, I returned, did research for the book, and even lectured at the official 1956 Historical Institute. Now that would be impossible, for the Institute no longer exists. The 1956 Historical Institute was defunded, some say because its files may have contained embarrassing information about presently powerful people! History tends to wobble around still, like that Budapest park filled with old statues of the Stalinist era!

My series caught on. The President of the American Foreign Service endorsed my series with a cover blurb, “London has Sherlock Holmes, San Francisco has Sam Spade, and now Washington has its first diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler. Learn about embassy life from the inside, as you enjoy Bill Shepard’s latest diplomatic mystery.”

How did I build my novel series using my work experience as a diplomat?


The themes in the series came from my own diplomatic experience. The first novel, VINTAGE MURDER, was set in Bordeaux, where Robbie Cutler was the American Consul. In MURDER ON THE DANUBE, the sequel, Robbie had reassigned as Political Officer to the American Embassy in Budapest.


The best practical writing advice I ever received was to know my main character well. I would then, gradually, find the other characters emerged from the qualities that my main character lacked. Uncle Seth, Robbie’s great uncle was a nationally prominent man, once TIME Magazine’s Man Of The Year, who also had access to Washington intelligence circles. I thought of Uncle Seth because I wanted Robbie to have access to national security information that a diplomat of his rank and experience would otherwise not have.


Bad guys? I’ve learned that they are all sorts of villains, but none are one dimensional. The ETA gunman in the first novel was motivated by a police killing of a member of his family. The traitor in the second novel was also motivated by the killing of a member of his family. It was fun to speculate about “the Napoleon of Crime,” but most people prefer a villain with reasonable and understandable motivations, something they are accustomed to.

I look forward to reader comments, as together we explore the fascinating craft of writing thrillers with international settings.


William S. Shepard is the author of the Robber Cutler diplomat mystery series: VINTAGE MURDER, MURDER ON THE DANUBE, MURDER IN DORDOGNE, and THE SLADIN AFFAIR. Career diplomat William S. Shepard served as the Consul or Political Officer at U.S. Embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens. Shepard’s diplomatic career was capped by service as Consul General at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. He and his wife now live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.Visit him on Facebook at or on his website


Miranda Parker said...

William, thank you so much for sharing your writing journey with us.I enjoyed the history behind your stories. As I began to read Vintage Murder I pictured you there.

We had another article published a few months ago about why some authors chose not to write about their career. Why did you feel that your former career was novel writing worthy?

William S. Shepard said...

I was and remain fascinated by diplomacy. There are layers and layers of experience, concealment and mystery. I particularly like the preparation that goes into being ready for a new diplomatic assignment, both cultural and linguistic. It is an endless realm, with many locations, which change with your latest assignment. That is why I was surprised that nobody had used a diplomat as a sleuth. The "day job" is fascinating - and I set that forth in some detail in each novel. In "Vintage Murder" Robbie runs a Consulate General staff meeting, and participates in a consular gathering at the Embassy in Paris, as I did. In "Murder On The Danube," he makes representations with the host government, shares notes with fellow diplomats, and learns about Budapest, as I did. The difference between "real life" and my novels is that in the books, a career diplomat solves crimes - and is himself a murder target.
By the way, both b ooks are on Kindle, and on special at a measly $2.99 each. Happy Reading!!

Miranda Parker said...

William, you are becoming more interesting by the minute. Wow! And wow that is a steal.

I like how you set up the scene in Vintage Murder. I'm a huge fan for setting and elegance. Love it.

Jenny Milchman said...

Thanks for this fascinating, detailed post, William. I like your approach to villains. The best are gray--and justified, or at least self-justified.

William S. Shepard said...

Jenny, my favorite scene involving one of my villains is in the third book of the series, "Murder In Dordogne." There, Robbie must interview an old member of the collaborationist French Milice, a despicable man who has, however, served his time. He also has information that will lead to the solving of a current murder, but is unaware of the importance of what he knows. Robbie's task is to interview him without falling in with his paranoia. I must confess that here, I was influenced by a scene from the great American classic, "The Devil and Daniel Webster," when Webster realizes that he risks his own soul, and draws back from confrontation in the nick of time. Robbie deflects temptation with an artful diplomatic conversation, and is rewarded with a reminiscence that solves a murder.